How To Choose School; A Guide For Expats In Europe

April 25 , 2021 by: Glenn Ho

If a son is uneducated, his father is to blame, an old Chinese proverb warned. John Dewey, a prominent American philosopher, famously declared, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself”. The importance of education is rightfully touted worldwide. Following, it is not an uncommon sight to see parents fret incessantly when it comes to deciding the course of their children’s educational path, burdened by the immense societal pressure of providing an exemplary, if not at the very least, an adequate education. I guess Spiderman’s uncle Ben was right, with great power comes great responsibility indeed.

With all the stress and preparation required to relocate yourself and your family to a new country, few can blame you for wanting to get settled into your new life as quickly as possible without the added strenuous complications and considerations of handpicking the best educational path for your children. Picture the exquisite culinary delights of Italy, the amazing architecture of the Netherlands and the incomparable scenery of Switzerland, just to name a few. Undoubtedly, it would prove a tough task for anybody to postpone said pleasures.

Having said that, you are not just anybody, you are a parent. The greatest beings capable of providing the purest love on the planet. “Behind every young child who believes in himself is a parent who believed first”, and to believe in your child is to make the necessary preparation for them to be the best version they could be. Do your due diligence and choose wisely. I’m sure that as parents, seeking comfort and rest will be the furthest thing from your mind while you make the required arrangements for your child’s future. While it could be tempting to shoehorn your child into the most convenient education option, you mustn’t neglect your child’s needs and future during your relocation.

Deciding the course of your children’s education is no walk in the park. There are innumerable factors that have to be considered in coming to a decision. You could akin the decision-making process to a meticulous balancing act on a tightrope, where either over-prioritizing or under-prioritizing a certain factor may lead to a spectacular implosion of your child’s educational future. Okay, perhaps a slight exaggeration, but the point remains that the decision-making process remains a fragile one. It won’t be an easy decision, but I have full faith in you!

It is no surprise then, that countless have made a career out of targeting antsy parents, providing them with reassuring advice as well as generally streamlining the process for worried parents who fear they might make the wrong choice for their child’s education. Having said that, the point of the article is to provide holistic information for you great parents out there, so that you may come to an even more informed decision in choosing your child’s educational path.

See also

While factors in deciding on your child’s educational journey may differ from country to country as well as being subjective to every individual child. Several universal considerations that include:

  1. The educational system; i.e. GCSE program, IB program;
  2. Public vs International schools;
  3. The school’s prestige;
  4. Connections your child could make;
  5. Location;
  6. Educational attainment – OECD Index

Educational System

The educational path you choose for your child to embark on could prove to be a pivotal one. In my opinion, choosing a kindergarten for your child should not require too high a priority as say, choosing a high school. Any local kindergarten will provide your child with the most basic skill at that level – social and emotional skills. This is where preschoolers learn how to interact and mingle with one another, amongst other skills like reading, cognitive thinking. Perhaps if you belong to the faction that believes a total education must begin at the earliest level, you could enroll your child in the world-famous Montessori preschool, emerging from Italy. They emphasize independence in their teachings, believing that it will produce a child who is independent, self-inquisitive and creative. Another prominent option can be found in the UK – Kensington kindergarten – where they stress individuality in teaching and believe that play for children is integral in their development.

At the primary level, in Europe, it is customary for children to enter primary school at age 5 or 7, age 7 being far more common. The primary school level typically lasts 6 years, although the range could in reality last for 4 – 7 years, depending on how academically inclined your child is. For the UK, primary education commences at age 5 and ends at age 11. Pretty clear-cut stuff.

At the high school level in the UK, your main options for your children at the high school level are either the GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) program or the IB (International Baccalaureate) program.

The IB program is a program recognized worldwide that spans primary, high school and diploma level. Typically, parents may make the switch at a high school level for their children. However, while less common, students may also begin their IB journey at the primary level. Proponents of the IB course argue that due to how the course is structured, IB students take college-level courses in high school, thereby ensuring a smoother transition from high school into their tertiary education later.

There have also been studies that have shown IB students being more likely to attend college and generally having a greater sense of preparedness. It has also been argued that the IB program provides a more holistic and scholastic curriculum to others. On a more practical note, colleges love the IB program, whereby it is recognized all over the world.

The GCSE program originated from England to establish a national qualification for individuals who wished to leave school earlier before completing their tertiary education. Students in the UK can choose to take the IB program or the GCSE program. The GCSE program provides more practicality for students who wish to leave school after secondary education, having a recognized certification while IB students would have to complete the entire program, being much longer.

Think of IB as an integrated curriculum that operates irrespective of a country’s respective secondary education system. The IB program is debatably the more well-rounded and accepted program worldwide but it takes a longer time. The GCSE program, on the other hand, has slightly less accreditation, but is more relevant to students wishing to leave school after secondary school, and still providing adequate recognition. Another thing to note is that international schools tend to follow the IB program.

Public vs International Schools

It is no secret that international schools are held in much higher regard than public schools. The same is true for how much costlier international schools are than their public government-aided counterparts.

People have argued that international schools, like ‘prestigious’ schools, are similar to luxury brands, their notoriety further supplemented by their obscene tuition fees. Do ‘prestigious’ schools produce better students? Or, is it the other way around? That by virtue of their name, promising students enroll with the assurances of a pathway to a better future. Subsequently, it acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy, with the ‘promising’ students raising the school’s performance and averages, and the process continually repeats. But I digress.

Back to the topic at hand, are your children going to be taught differently? What is the general price comparison between local schools and international schools?

International schools, being much more expensive, have the privilege of offering much smaller class sizes in comparison to public schools. This allows the teachers to provide more individualized attention to the students. They are also able to offer a wider range of extra languages than public schools. Further, the range of extra-curricular activities that international schools can offer dwarf public schools due to their much larger budget. Think equestrian lessons, water polo, archery etc.

According to a study made in 2020 by the International Schools Database, expats moving to Spain with a view of enrolling their child in an international school are in luck. Spain remains one of the least expensive countries in Europe for your child to have an international education. Switzerland? Not so much. Switzerland is world-famous for having the most expensive international schools, not just in Europe, but the world.

For France and the UK, specifically Paris and London, the answer is not as clear-cut as they are the 2 places which possess the biggest range in international school prices. The price difference between the most expensive and cheapest international school is $33,000 a year and $34,000 a year for Paris and London respectively. Germany is slightly more forgiving, whereby the price range for international schools in Berlin is $14,000 between the most expensive and least expensive. So how much you pay will very much depend on the specific international school you intend to enroll your child into.

For local schools in Europe at a secondary level, more specifically the countries discussed in this article, expats can send their children to high school completely free of charge. You simply have to show proof of residence and legally being in the country. So, the price difference could be huge should you choose to enroll your child in an international school.

Oxford University, UK on Pixabay

Prestige and your resume

Prestige. The lifeblood of the elite. Humans, rightly or wrongly so, are concerned with status. This is especially true once our basic hierarchy of needs is covered, where we start to crave esteem and recognition from others. This is how prestigious schools can demand so much money for the education they provide, where they have effectively established themselves as different from the rest of the pack, and following, graduates of those schools are beneficiaries of that fact.

It cannot be denied that having a prestigious school listed on your resume will provide you with much brighter prospects compared to one from a local school. Of course, many other factors play a part in such selections, but being an alumni of certain schools tend to highlight your resume. Consider yourself as a prospective employer. You come across two different resumes. The first one is a local graduate from a university barely anyone has ever heard of with excellent grades, the second one is an ivy-league graduate with average grades. I am willing to bet that you will be immediately drawn to the applicant who is an alumnus of such a prestigious school.

For anxious parents, that path to university and eventually the careers of their children begins with enrolling in an equally prestigious school at a high school level (it seems silly to consider seriously the prestige of a kindergarten and primary schools)

Connections your child could make

This ties into the previous point of prestige. We have all heard the stories. A friend of your friend’s friends has met significant people in the business world or scions of prominent families in universities, and leveraging on those connections, have been able to achieve success and improve their lives. How much of that is reality and how much, hopefulness? How much of this factor should play a part in your consideration of your child’s education?

Think golf club memberships. The world’s elite pay obscene amounts of money to do what? Play golf? No. They are willing to pay the amounts demanded by golf clubs for top-tier golf club memberships because they want to be involved in the social circle of the elite. Millions and billions worth of deals are in fact secured on a golf course.

Perhaps that is a harsher reality. But there remains an element of truth in the importance of making connections. On a gentler note, international schools are much the same way, on a lower and more innocent scale (for the children at least). It definitely wouldn’t hurt anybody, except your wallets, to send your child to a prominent school where they could mix with the elite.

In having this discussion, it would be criminal not to mention Switzerland. Switzerland has been ranked as one of, if not, the most expensive places to have an international education. Thanks to a combination of the majestic scenery, the winter activities available (think ski slopes) and their reputation for having the best schools (and perhaps the concentration of affluence), Switzerland has long been the hotspot for many scions of prominent families, having the highest boarding school fees in the world. Should making connections be at the back of your mind, relocating to Switzerland to have an education at the prestigious Institut Auf dem Rosenberg or Le Rosey, should be considered.

Another country that has a distinctive reputation for prestigious high schools would be the UK – the famous Wycombe Abbey School (girls) and Westminster School. Wycombe Abbey School admits girls at age 11, 13 and 16 while Westminster School admits boys to their Under School at ages 7, 8 and 11, and boys and girls to their Great School at age 16. Of course, the other countries discussed in this article have prestigious high schools where your child could make valuable connections, but the above-mentioned countries stand out on a global scale.

The Metro, Paris, France on Pixabay


The location of your child’s school is probably of a lower priority than other factors. Nonetheless, it is important to at least have a brief consideration of this factor to ensure that your child does not burn out from excessive traveling. And that you get to see them often, yay!

The Netherlands is a good example of a country whereby you do not have to worry too much about the location of the school as it is a relatively small country compared to its European peers. This is supplemented by the fact that the Netherlands boast one of the best public transport systems in the world. Let’s not forget about their awesome cycling culture either. Switzerland is another relatively small country that is relatively easy to get around. Furthermore, as discussed earlier, they have a great number of boarding schools (the fees are another matter), so there is always the option of letting your child stay there.

In contrast, the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Spain are huge. For expats relocating to these countries, the consideration of location could take slightly higher priority than those moving to the Netherlands or Switzerland. However, the bigger countries more than compensate for their larger size with their efficient transport systems. Transport in the UK is pretty decent. I should know, I lived there for 3 years while taking my bachelors. The metro system in London is especially efficient, if slightly old. Also, who can forget the iconic red London buses? Traveling between counties is also a comfortable journey, if slightly more expensive.

Germany, the standard of efficiency for the world, does not disappoint in its public transport system. Germany has 5 commonly used modes of transport: S-Bahn, U-Bahn, tram, bus, regional trains. Traveling within a particular city? No problem. Simply look out for a big “S” and you have found the S-Bahn. It is also known as the city speed rail, being the most rapid form of transportation Germany has to offer, connecting the suburbs with the city centre. The U-Bahn on the other hand is Germany’s metro or subway that mostly runs underground. They also have trams and buses for more specific travel locations. Moving between cities? The regional trains have got you covered. For our Italian neighbors, they possess high-speed trains, their local train network, the cheaper bus alternative and even boats and ferries for areas that require them! How cool is that?

Concerning France, Paris itself has over 300 metro stations! You can see how much the French value their public transport systems, and if that doesn’t impress you, nothing will. Spain on the other hand, specifically Madrid, is also home to one of the most progressive transport systems which include a metro, metro rails, commuter rails and buses. Not only are they clean, but it is relatively affordable too.

The point I am trying to make is that while the countries discussed in this article do differ in size, they have been able to make effective and efficient transport systems, catering perfectly to their size differences. Following, you don’t have to worry too much about the location of your children’s schools in these countries.

Educational Attainment – OECD Index

Despite the importance of choosing a top-tier education, it is also important to find one that has a track record of introducing top quality individuals into the workforce. Using the OECD Index, we can attain a clearer picture of which countries are able to achieve this educational attainment for the bright young minds they are fostering.

The OECD Index for Education stresses the role of education in society, stating that education improves people’s lives in many different areas such as – civic participation, health and most importantly, happiness. There have even been studies that have shown that educated individuals live longer, participate more readily in the community they live in as well as commit fewer crimes. To live a fulfilled life, your basic needs must be covered, which ties into being able to secure a job and provide for yourself and your family. That’s what education does, enabling an individual to find success in their life, proving what John Dewey said to be true, education is indeed life. Most importantly, in my opinion, is your child’s educational attainment, which measures the likelihood of securing a job and earning sufficient money to lead a comfortable life.

France is described as having a well-balanced education system, whereby the French can expect to undergo 16.5 years of education, less than the OECD average of 17.2 years. The average student in France scored 496 in reading literacy, maths and sciences, also above the OECD average of 486. Their educational attainment is 78.4% being ranked at 26/40.

Germany takes it one step further. While individuals on average take up to 18 years to finish their education, above the OECD average, the average student in Germany scored an eye-popping 508 for their reading literacy, maths and sciences score. That is well above the OECD average, along with their educational attainment of 86.5%, being ranked 16/40.

Italy, on the other hand, trails its European counterparts slightly. Students of Italy can expect to complete their education in 16.6 years (below average). The average student there scored 485 in reading literacy etc. while their educational attainment is at a lower 60.9%, being ranked 34/40.

The Netherlands is another country that has a relatively robust education system. They do however require an average of 19 years (above average) to finish their education with the same remarkable reading literary score as Germany, 508. They have an educational attainment of 78.4%, ranked one position behind France.

This might not make good reading for the Spanish. Students in Spain can expect to undergo an average of 18 years (above average) to finish their education while their reading literary score is at a respectable 491. Where their ranking suffers is their educational attainment, being placed at 59.1%, and ranking at 35/40 of the countries ranked by the OECD Index.

Switzerland, being the most expensive country to have an education on the list, possesses arguably the most balanced education system on our list. Students there can expect to complete their education in 17.5 years (above average). The average student scored 506 in reading literacy, maths and sciences. Here’s the clincher. Their educational attainment is at an amazing 87.8%, ranked 11/40.

Students in the UK can expect to finish their educational journey in 17.5 years (above average) with a reading literacy score of 506. Pretty impressive stuff. Their educational attainment for students that have graduated is relatively high as well, at 81.2%, and ranked 23/40. Overall, a decent grade.

Photo by Jan Vasek on Pixabay

Dealing with change

Last, but definitely not least, as general advice, is helping your child manage change. It is well documented that the majority of humans react poorly to change. It is common for changes in your environment to lead to rising stress and anxiety levels. That is an undeniable fact of human nature. Perhaps, your younger children, with their youthful naivete and lack of awareness, are less likely to be affected. However, that may not be the case for your preteen or teenage children. Humans crave familiarity and community. A change in environment could overwhelm your children due to the change in routine, loss of community and friends.

Apart from the unenviable task of finding new friends, especially in the middle of the semester, when friend groups are already established, (think every Disney movie you watched when you were younger, when the main character transferred to a new place) your child may struggle to acclimatize to the new and foreign syllabus. Failure to keep up with their new peers may also lead to a drop in confidence in your child. The pertinent question then, is: How do relocating expatriates help their children cope with change, uncertainty and the loss of their community?

Some tips for helping your child cope with relocating:

  1. Mentally prepare your child for the move by explaining in advance and going through potential issues that might occur;
  2. Provide some semblance of control – involve your kids in the moving process i.e. giving them the option to decide on something minor in the relocation process;
  3. Provide a routine – humans by nature need a routine to feel grounded, so perhaps you could stick to a previous routine that you had before the relocation i.e. playing baseball at 6 pm;
  4. Stay positive and ensure clear communication – constantly remind your kids of the pros of relocating and making sure that you are available for communication when they have any problems;
  5. ‘Friends’ – Friends are important (yes, I am referring to both the beloved sitcom and actual friends). It is paramount that you assist your child in finding new friend groups to get a greater sense of belonging in his new environment as well as encouraging him to keep in contact with his old friends through social media.

You are invited to read our article about the Challenges of Parenting as an Expat.

I hope the reading of this article has better equipped you with the perilous decision that is choosing your child’s education. One last piece of advice: trust your gut. It is right on most occasions. Prioritize the factors that you consider the highest regard in making your decision. All the best!


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